Music has always been a pillar of Africana culture and one of the most powerful tools behind storytelling, empowering social change, and celebrating the culture from which it was derived. Art – and music, in particular – often holds a unique disposition, speaking to the present while simultaneously advocating for a better future. As we begin Black History Month, it’s important to remember that “history” as we know it is so often rewritten by the oppressors. It gets skewed, revised, and twisted in the hopes that eventually it can be erased. Art, however, is not so easily rewritten.
Over generations, Black music has endured to tell the most authentic stories and narratives from its artists. From celebrating Black culture to resisting the oppression it faces, music is perhaps the most powerful and consistent platform to educate oneself throughout Black History Month and beyond.
To help commemorate the month, we’ve put together a list of 10 albums that celebrate Black lives, Black culture, and the authentic narratives of Black history.
JAY-Z – 4:44
For his 13th studio album, JAY-Z reaches profound emotional depths. For nearly his entire career, Jay has been an authoritative orator of the hip-hop community; when he speaks, people listen. And 4:44 is no exception. Touching on everything from the culture of hip-hop to his relationships and family life, the album is as aspirational as it is reflective.
Hit songs like “The Story of OJ” underscore the importance of Black ownership and capitalism while examining the layered position of Blackness in American culture. But other tracks look inwards, as Jay explores his own relationships in “Family Feud” and “4:44” and creates a call to action against separation in the Black community, in particular.
Jay has become one of the most prominent cultural forces in music, making his vulnerability and candour that much more impactful. It’s an album that draws both a blueprint for commercial success and a roadmap to personal growth brought to life through 10 perfect tracks.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Incomparable wordsmiths Yasiin Bey (known more widely as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli released one of the most nuanced narrations of Black culture with their collaborative album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Released in 1998, both MCs were fairly unestablished at the release of the album, yet the duo managed to produce some of the most thought-provoking lyrics of the decade.
With a blend of contemporary social commentary and a raw narrative of Black history, the duo delivers a beautiful tribute to the unique struggles and triumphs within the community. Songs such as “Brown-Skin Lady” celebrate Black beauty while the record’s opening track, “Astronomy (8th Light),” takes on an even wider scope by exploring the complexity of the word “black” and its negative cultural connotations. Of course, over the years, the duo would build out their own successful individual careers, but this album acted as their debut stage for artistic activism.
Nina Simone – Black Gold
Recorded in 1969 and released in 1970, Nina Simone’s Black Gold was one of the final albums released before the artist’s time in America came to an abrupt end. The recording captures a performance given at New York City’s Philharmonic Hall, in front of a sold-out crowd. This concert sees Simone at the pinnacle of both her fame and political passion, reflected in the incredible quality of the performance and the inspired choice of material.
Songs like “Aint Got No – I Got Life” voice powerful affirmations of self-love and an embrace of her identity as a Black woman. But Black Gold is especially notable for its performance of one of Simone’s most celebrated civil rights anthems, “To Be Young Gifted And Black.” In the song’s introduction, she explains, “It is not addressed to white people. It does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you. […] For my people need all the inspiration and love they can get.” The album is resistive while not divisive, confrontational and beautifully honest, and above all else, a reminder that Simone’s otherworldly talent was backed up by one of the most influential personalities in music.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a masterful look into the rapper’s thoughts on personal and political subjects related to race and discrimination. The album showcases Lamar’s transition from a microscopic experience in Compton to his wider outlook as to what it means to be Black in America. Incorporating elements of blues, soul, funk, and spoken word, To Pimp a Butterfly’s emphasis on range culminated in a sound that essentially doubled as a whistle-stop tour through the history of Black music in America.
But perhaps no track has made its mark on modern activism more than “Alright,” which became a rallying cry of sorts at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sang joyful songs to stay level-headed with what was going on,” Lamar told NPR in 2019. “We still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records.”
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
In just their second studio album, Public Enemy delivered an album that not only reimagined how hip-hop could sound but offered a new way in which to read the world. The pace of the albums flows so much more naturally than their debut record, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, but its true differentiator came in the substance behind the music. The group had set out to create the hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an album noted for its strong social commentary (and one that, of course, also made our list).
The racially-charged shockwaves of the Ronald Reagan era demanded resistance. Musically, that came in the form of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The lyrics themselves are as militant as the album’s name would suggest, but within each of its 16 breathless tracks lies an awe-inspiring array of rhythms, words, samples, and revolutionary ideas. Every aspect of the album combines to weave a complex tapestry of contemporary Black America. The record confronts complacency in the system and promotes the radical activism still necessary today. As “Countdown To Armageddon’s” rallying cry attested, this was – and still is – music for the next generation of troublemakers.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Traditionally, Motown music wasn’t particularly known for its political consciousness. Then, Marvin Gaye arrived. Released in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War, What’s Going On became something of a musical and cultural revolution. The title track, with its timeless lyric, “War is not the answer/ For only love can conquer hate,” condemned the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. But the song also provides an insight into the evolution of Gaye’s music to encompass overtly political themes.
Even the way in which the album was released proved radical at the time. Instead of being stifled by Berry Gordy’s politically-passive approach to Motown music, Gaye opted to produce the album himself. The result is a painfully beautiful protest album from the first track to the last. In a time when issues of war, white supremacy, and police brutality remain as prevalent as ever, Gaye’s work continues to act as a spectacular resistance, even decades after its release.
Solange – A Seat at the Table
What makes Solange’s work, and specifically A Seat at the Table, so powerful is her ability to spotlight that which is true about Black life, not what is palatable. The 21-song project examines the nuances of Black womanhood and its relationship to Southern culture. And while the album is vital in its celebration of Black lives, it also acts as a crucial wake-up call to its white listeners to reflect on their own passivity.
Solange’s music has always embraced a rich identity of Blackness, but that pride is perhaps best exemplified on A Seat at the Table, where the entire structure of the record acts as a reflection of collective experiences. Most importantly, it amplifies the conflicts facing Black women in America. Songs like “Weary” and “Mad” tell the story of the overwhelming feeling of living in a country that pretends to have healed and righted the wrongs of its racist origins with performative action. But adding levity to these necessary confrontations are tracks like “Junie” and “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” which make space for Black Joy. By the end of the album, Solange’s mission is clear: to create a call to love all iterations of Blackness.
James Brown – Live at the Apollo
Widely considered to be the greatest live album recording of all time, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo would have earned its spot on this list from the cultural weight it carried alone. While most record producers believed a live album would struggle to find commercial success, the sound of the sold-out Apollo crowd clinging to Brown’s every note only amplified the record’s impact. Still, with no previous blueprint for a project of this magnitude, Brown was forced to fund the album himself. However, given its success, Live at the Apollo acted as the catalyst for fellow Black artists to achieve greater creative and financial autonomy in the decades following.
The climax of the album, “Lost Someone,” goes on for an incredible 11 minutes with a frenzied call and response and declaration of passion from the horn section. Eventually, the crescendo settles into “Medley: Please Please Please” where a man in the crowd yells “Take us home, Jackie!” It’s an album that embodies the intimate relationship between music and community while celebrating an artist that inspired future generations of Black creators.
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
When Lauryn Hill dropped her one and only solo album, it immediately became the magnum opus for coming-of-age Black women. Narrating the highs, lows, and growing pains of experiencing love, fame, faith, and childbirth, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill provided something of a foundational guideline for womanhood. Armed with wisdom far beyond her years, soulful melodies, and a rhythmic cadence that reimagined what hip-hop could sound like, Hill’s album is still widely regarded as one of the greatest catalogues of all time.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill went on to sell more than 8 million copies in the U.S. and 12 million copies worldwide. “In it, Hill refuses to shy away from topics often left unspoken, injecting classroom love lesson interludes and hard-hitting lyrics about how money changes people,” wrote NPR. And yet despite the commercial success and critical acclaim, Hill retreated and dropped out of planned projects after the project released, citing the pressures of being in the public eye. But in the end, Hill’s legacy lives on as the artist behind one of the most authentic and beloved celebrations of Blackness and womanhood in America.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A.’s seminal album, Straight Outta Compton, provided a jolt to the rap industry. Public Enemy had helped redefine the genre by ushering in lyrics that were intelligent, socially aware, and politically charged. But N.W.A. took the baton from Public Enemy and added a level of fury that would define the next decade of hip-hop while sending a message across the globe.
With their unfiltered descriptions of life in Compton coupled with their ardent condemnation of police brutality and racial profiling, their message still permeates through all walks of life in America. While the group would ultimately dissolve in 1991, for many, the 1992 Rodney King protests symbolized the very message that N.W.A. had come to espouse. In their relatively short run, the group had rewritten the rap genre and continues to echo the sentiments of many in the Black community today.